Diamonds In The Rough: Wario Land 3 (GBC)

Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past.  These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.Being a hero is a thankless job.  The hours are long, the trials are many, and the princess is always in another freaking castle.  Besides, folks like Mario can be so insufferably cheery sometimes.  That’s why we have Wario.  A fat, greedy, loutish brute who’s always good for a chuckle, and in case you weren’t aware, the protagonist to a refreshingly unique series of platformers on the Game Boy.

The original Wario Land started things off fairly similarly to its Mario predecessors – Wario came in two sizes depending on his health, there were a number of hat-based powerups contained in blocks, and the adventure was mostly linear with a few branching paths.  The biggest departure here was the main character, who was tough enough not to take damage by simply touching an enemy (they had to actually stick him with the pointy end), and had his own crude repertoire of skills, including the now-iconic shoulder ram.
Wario Land 2 mixed things up quite a bit more by making Wario totally invincible.  Far from making things a walk in the park, this introduced a whole new layer of gameplay by making Wario dependent on his enemies in order to solve a wide range of puzzles.  You see, while he couldn’t be killed, Wario could still be effected in various ways by the baddies of the land – being crushed by a weight might make him pancake flat, for instance.  These transformations could help or hinder the player, and the trick was often figuring out how to use them to your advantage.  For example, a zombified Wario would fall through thin floors, which might act as a setback or allow you into a new area.  However, walking into a ray of light would change you back, so if there was a specific floor you wanted to pass through, you had to plan your route carefully.

Wario Land 3 builds off this mechanic and refines it in what is in my opinion the best of the series.  The list of transformations is much longer here than it was in the previous game, and this leads to a much wider variety of puzzles.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll often allow yourself to be struck by every new enemy you encounter just to see what happens.  There’s a sort of cartoony Mr.Bill-esque sadism to the whole thing…Mario would never stand for such indignities.
Wario’s third adventure is also much more freeform than his previous two.  Each stage contains four seperate treasure chests and a corresponding four keys.  In order to pass a stage, you must find one of these keys and unite it with its like-colored chest.  The contents of these chests is variable but rarely useless.  From half an amulet to a pair of overalls, these “artifacts” will usually open up a new stage, trigger a change in a previous stage, or reward Wario with a new ability.  Opening all four chests in any given level is impossible the first time through, and so there’s a good amount of Metroid-style backtracking once you find the right item for the job.  If this wasn’t enough, there’s even a simple night and day system that triggers its own changes across levels.  Access a desert stage during the day and you might be confronted by a sea of quicksand, but come back at night and you may find that same area an empty ditch full of sleeping enemies.  Like Wario’s transformations, these changes can be good or bad, opening up new areas but closing off others, and it adds yet another element to this already expansive puzzler.
However, every game has its flaws, and the Game Boy era was one in which gamers had a lot more patience (at least, I know I did back then – no way would I suffer through the blind trial-and-error and almost unfair difficulty of Final Fantasy Legend 3 today…but I digress).  Wario Land 3’s biggest problem is that messing up will often set you back pretty far, and this leads to a lot of backtracking.  This can get tiresome very quickly in more difficult portions of the game, as it only takes one hit to trigger a transformation that will drop you off a cliff or spring you out of a boss’s lair.  There’s also a pervasive golf-themed minigame that isn’t really bad in itself but is entirely overused.  It might have been a humorous diversion if used sparingly, but there’s really no reason Wario should have to sink an enemy into a tin cup under par in order to open up so many gates within actual levels.
If you can get past these slip-ups, though, Wario Land 3 is a very fun and rewarding game that manages to get you thinking more than the average platformer.  The greatest thing it has going for it is sheer variety in powerups, collectibles, stages, gameplay, you name it.  And let’s face it, Wario is just a more fun character than his goody-two-shoes counterpart.  If you’re looking for something different from jumping on turtles to save a princess, try setting yourself on fire and running through a wall for sweet, sweet treasure.

What games do you think were tragically underrated?  What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood?  Let me know in the comments!

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

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August 29, 2010 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

The Fight Over DLC In Fighting Games

Downloadable content in fighting games has historically been a superfluous service, generally restricted to cosmetic changes like additional character costumes or colors.  That’s why, when Arc System Works announced they were going to release meaningful DLC to increase the lifespan of their latest fighter (BlazBlue: Continuum Shift), I was pretty excited.  However, not all is gumdrops and chocolate fountains here, as the first downloadable character dropped this week and spurred a fair amount of backlash.

I understand the complaints: 8 dollars seems a bit steep for a single character when there is no single-player material to go along with it, the character in question wears clothes so comically skimpy that it smacks of a cheap “sex sells” marketing ploy, and the character becoming available so soon after the game’s release raises concerns about ArcSys withholding content to make a quick buck.  These are valid concerns, and I too was disappointed in the lack of single-player integration for the new character.  The timeframe for the character’s release is a bit questionable, but I think it makes sense – there’s a good amount of time after a game goes gold that this development could have fit in, especially with localization.  Though the purchase is for an unlock, the character was included in a patch and was not on the original disc – an important distinction.  As for the prurient marketing ploy, well… it’s hard to argue with that.

Seriously, this is fan service bordering on self-parody.

That said, I still support the direction ArcSys is going with their new DLC.  How can I say that?  Well, perhaps it’s a matter of perspective.  8 dollars seems like a lot in this instance, yes, but if you were to purchase all 3 downloadable characters, you’ll still have only spent $64 on the game – barely breaking the usual retail price of a new title.  When combined with balance patches that are still purportedly free, this constitutes the main body of changes that would go into a subsequent installment of a normal fighting franchise.  $64 is going to be lower than whatever you pay for two separate games a year apart, which is the alternative that ArcSys is breaking away from with this DLC.  Casual fans can just pay $40 for the basic game, and they won’t have to worry about having an outdated model in a year.

Hell, even if you decided not to pay for any downloadable content, you can still play against these characters online – a point I haven’t really seen mentioned.  It’s actually a pretty nice deal: if you see a character you have no interest in playing as, you don’t have to buy him, but you can still face off against people online who use him.  In this case the downloadable character just becomes free DLC.  From your standpoint, it’s as though you bought the character – you wouldn’t have played as him anyway, just against him.  The only downsides to this are that your friends can’t use the character if you play local games, and there’s no real way to get a feel for any given character to see if you’d want to play as them (outside of playing against them or watching videos online, which gives you some idea but not the full picture).

There is plenty of other DLC for the game that’s more clearly a cash grab: additional colors, different announcer voices, even pay-to-unlock-stuff-that’s-already-in-the-game options.  It obviously makes them money because they keep doing it, but hey, you don’t have to buy that silly stuff if you don’t want to.  I think it’s important to draw a line between these cosmetic downloadables and the more substantial content already mentioned.  The former are questionable, but the latter signify a welcome change in how fighting game series are run.  When the alternatives are a new game every year or maybe even (god forbid) a subscription-based program, I’ll take this DLC model every time.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

August 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm Leave a comment

Review: BlazBlue: Continuum Shift (PS3/360)

Game Review: BlazBlue: Continuum Shift
Release: July 27, 2010
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Arc System Works
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, XBox 360
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $39.99
ESRB Rating: T
Website: http://www.aksysgames.com/games/bbcs-ps3/

Let’s see…blister on my thumb, bloodshot eyes…  Yep, looks like a new ArcSys fighter just came out.  The latest edition in the BlazBlue series, to be exact.  For those unfamiliar with this series, it’s the spiritual successor to the Guilty Gear franchise – a fast-paced and aggressive 2D fighter with a fairly small roster and only 4 buttons, but a whole lot of depth.  Its use of sprites may be somewhat out of fashion compared to the direction Capcom is going with their art style, but it still looks great (even better than SSF2 HD, for instance – the still images don’t really do it justice).  Characters also have incredibly unique and fun playstyles, from a grappler who uses magnetism to pull opponents towards his massive fists to a vampire who uses wind to manipulate the paths of projectiles and characters alike.

Where Guilty Gear was often seen as a fighting game made for fans of the genre, almost impenetrable to newcomers, BlazBlue seeks to be more inviting to the novice player without sacrificing the depth of high-level play.  As you might imagine, this is something of a tightrope act.  Action has been slowed down a bit from GG (though it’s still very fast in practice), and timing windows for combos are a bit more generous (though there are still plenty of really tough ones to pull off).  Continuum Shift puts the emphasis less on dumbing down the gameplay and more on creating a ramp to help newcomers up the learning curve.  New gameplay modes include a tutorial, which runs through the basics of the game fairly well, from basic mechanics like high and low attacks to more advanced techniques such as rapid cancelling.  There’s even a section that explains basic strategies for each character, and a series of challenges that teach players a number of combos for each character.  If this wasn’t enough, there’s even a beginner mode that lets anyone pick up the game and play by enabling one-button combos and special attacks.  This mode is sort of like a set of training wheels – you can’t do everything with it, and eventually you’ll want to take the setting off in order to get better, but it’s a useful learning tool to see how the game works.

While the real meat of any fighting game is its two player versus mode, there’s a wide variety of single player options here, too.  Alongside old standbys like Arcade and Score Attack are new modes like Legion, which is an interesting variation on traditional “survival” modes that forces you to use a variety of characters to take over a map in Risk-like fashion.  Story mode makes a return, and picks up right where the last game left off.  The story is actually pretty good…for a fighting game, at least.  It’s sort of a convoluted mess by any other measurement, its stereotypical anime conceits like mysterious pasts, power levels, and transformations compounded by being set in a universe whose laws are apparently predicated upon time loops and paradoxes, and quantum theory of all things.  That said, it isn’t all bad.  Exploring all of the different branching story paths can be fun, the characters are all enjoyable, and Aksys has done a great job of translating the ever-present japanese humor.  Of course, given that it’s a continuation of the tangled plot of the last game, newcomers will likely be lost at sea.

But let’s get to the good stuff – multiplayer.  The game has been rebalanced since the last installment, and each character has at least one new move to expand their repertoire (some even play radically different this time around).  There are three new characters, one of which is exclusive to the console versions but sadly has to be unlocked, which brings the total up to a more respectable 15.  With all of these changes even those who played the first BlazBlue will have plenty of new things to learn here.  Online play is some of the best to be had from a 2D fighter thanks to some excellent netcode – I’ve personally had matches with people across the country without a hitch.  Matchmaking and profiles (called D-cards) have been improved in Continuum Shift, now allowing you to join player rooms while members are mid-fight (finally!) and giving you a more detailed play history of your opponents and yourself.

All of this, coupled with a new presentation (updated backgrounds, new music, new voice clips, etc) is enough to justify a new game on its own, but what really excites me is the DLC.  While ArcSys (and most other developers in the genre) have traditionally worked on a basis of releasing one new edition of their fighting games about every year, Continuum Shift looks set to change that.  ArcSys’s plans for downloadable content are fairly extensive, from free balance patches every 6 months or so to extra downloadable characters (three are in the works) complete with their own single player modes.  It’s nice to see that ArcSys is going out of their way to support the console version of their game and not simply sticking to the arcades, and this strategy should lead to greater longevity for this installment.

Bottom line: If you’re a BlazBlue fan, this title is a no-brainer (esp since the all-important network mode of the last game is sure to become somewhat depopulated now).  If you’re thinking of trying out the series, this is a great time to do so, with a reduced price, promises of DLC support in the near future, and plenty of introductory modes to help you learn the game.  If you’re looking for a well-designed fighter, something different from the Street Fighters and the Tekkens, you can’t go wrong here.  On the other hand, if you aren’t a fan of the fighting genre, this one probably won’t make a convert out of you.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

August 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

Diamonds in the Rough: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)

Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past. These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.

The Zelda series is one that gets a whole lot of flak for being derivative and formulaic, some detractors going as far as saying Nintendo just releases the same game every few years with a different subtitle.  Judging from the relative unpopularity of Majora’s Mask, however, it seems that many fans might be more hesitant about change than they seem.  This is because though its dungeon crawling follows the same basic pattern (find weapon, use weapon to kill boss), Majora’s Mask is perhaps the most unique variation on a Zelda game in the 3D era.

The first distinct element that separates MM from the herd is its use of time.  Where Ocarina of Time had a basic night-and-day system, MM has fully developed days on which different things occur.  The entire game takes place over the course of 3 days, in fact, which you must replay over and over again with your time-traveling flute in order to prevent the apocalypse which happens at the end of the third night.  This conceit allowed the developers to create a more fully realized world in which plot lines develop between NPCs over the course of time, and interesting puzzles arise as you try to figure out when and where you need to be to meet up with a certain person, for instance.  This mechanic even extends into the dungeons – 3 game days may seem like a long time, but combined with the four massive temples of MM it leads to some fairly strict time limits.
Plot wise, this apocalyptic story is one of the darker tales told by a Zelda game, though much of this element is unspoken*.  Spend three days reuniting two estranged lovers, for instance, and you’re rewarded with a scene of them silently embracing as the moon creeps inexorably forward to destroy the town.  There is also a strange sense of futility you get from helping people out only to have to go back in time and effectively undo your good deeds.  Oh, and solving everybody’s problems in a single 3 day period?  Impossible.  You may be the Hero of Time, but you can’t be everywhere at once – an unusually frank statement on the nature of heroism from a series that’s usually black-and-white with the term.  Oh, and collect every mask in the game and you’re given the Fierce Diety’s mask, an item supposedly more powerful and evil than the one you’re supposed to be ridding the world of.  Not every day Link resorts to fighting fire with fire.

Speaking of masks, though, this is the other big unique element of the game – masks that transform you into a member of one of the other Hyrulian races.  Though you’re still “Link,” this is the first time in a Zelda game you aren’t exclusively playing as a sword-wielding fellow in a green tunic.  You can switch between human, deku scrub, goron, and zora, and each has its own skill set and weaknesses, used to solve puzzles, travel to new areas, and even fight bosses.  Having a unique instrument to each race is a cool bonus, but I do wish it had been implemented a bit more.  Beyond these transformative masks, though, you can also find a wide variety of lesser masks which do all sorts of minor things when equipped, from making you run faster to letting you talk to frogs or read people’s thoughts.  It adds a fair bit of depth to the gameplay through the sheer amount of variety it affords you, and it also stimulates the collectionist part of your brain (speaking of collectionism, there are also incidental items you can choose to collect in each dungeons for various rewards – it’s a nice additional challenge and adds some replay value to the levels, something I would like to see more Zelda games do).
As with any experiment, though, the game is a bit hit or miss.  What it does well it knocks out of the park, but it falters in a few areas – most notably some uninspired boss fights.  Though the second dungeon and boss are both great, but the others simply fail to be memorable – they’re done competently enough, but we’ve come to expect a bit more from a Zelda game.  The game is also a bit on the short side with only four dungeons (though they are larger than the norm), and as the trade-off for the cool masks you end up with a smaller repertoire of tools.  Because of this, I can see why people may have been upset with this quirky successor to one of the most celebrated titles of all time, but for what it’s worth I think it stands on its own as a pretty great game.  Just a bit different.

What games do you think were tragically underrated? What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood? Let me know in the comments!

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* Though there’s some unspoken humor, as well.  Take the banking system for instance, which as far as I can tell is a weird sort of extortion.  Barring a magical bank that’s untouched by time, it seems that what you’re doing each time you reset the clock and make a withdrawal is giving this guy a receipt from a different timeline and asking him for money that you technically never gave him.  Way to be, Link.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

July 26, 2010 at 2:27 am Leave a comment

What Happened To The Survival Horror Genre?

I mentioned in a previous article that I felt the horror genre as a whole “has trended away from its bearings in the real world towards crazy shoot-em-ups like RE5 and Dead Space. These are both fine games, but they lack the grounding and thus much of the horror element of their predecessors.” I feel like this deserves more discussion than I gave it at the time. Just to be clear, RE4 is one of my all-time favorite games. But it isn’t a survival horror game by any stretch of the imagination – just a creative shooter. Previous RE games were, as they had you conserving scarce ammo supplies like your life depended on it (it did), and evading enemies who would end you in seconds if they got their decaying mitts on you.

This is the defining element of survival horror games, and for good reason: once you’re armed to the teeth and can kill anything that is set in front of you (albeit with some difficulty at times), the game isn’t scary anymore. It becomes a shooting gallery in which you move from target to target. If you die, it isn’t because you were caught by an unstoppable monstrosity, it’s because you didn’t put enough bullets into your enemies. Having to evade enemies provides much more tension. When you dispatch a foe, you no longer have to worry about it. When you run away from a foe, it’s still out there somewhere, and this knowledge makes you much more cautious.

Zombies in particular have fallen out of the survival horror genre. More and more games feature the little shamblers, and fewer and fewer games present them as anything but dumb, shuffling targets. Zombies have been something of a cliche for a while, but games have really been overdoing it lately. You can find them everywhere, from Crackdown 2 to Uncharted. Even games that have nothing to do with the undead will often throw in a bonus mode or DLC to cram them in (see: CoD: World at War, Red Dead Redemption, and Borderlands). This is probably because zombies provide an outlet for guilt-free killing, but unlike other perennial favorites like Nazis or robots, they can provide some really incredibly gory guilt-free killing. I don’t think that Zombies are a lost cause for horror games, but they would require a fresh presentation / re-imagining at this point to make them scary again.

In order to put the horror back into games, you need limits. Not only limits on ammo, which we’ve touched on, but also limits on movement. After all, things aren’t going to be that frightening (or realistic) if you can double jump over threats or run faster than the zombie dogs that are chasing you. RE4 tried this with its weird gun-turret characters, which was fun when you got used to it and succeeded in making the slow zombies a threat. The Silent Hill series for its own part has had god-awful controls, which works in a weird way to get you to run away from everything, but isn’t much fun to play. Limiting movement beyond what a normal person would be able to do is a bit silly, though, and can be jarring. I can walk backwards or to the side while aiming, so why can’t my character? Limiting movement by putting the player into close quarters seems more realistic and more effective to me. You might be able to run faster than a zombie, but if 20 of them are coming down a narrow hallway toward you, and you only have three bullets, you’re going to have to make some decisions, fast.

This might be scary if it wasn’t broad daylight…and you weren’t a walking armory.

Personally, I think that a first-person view is the most conducive to a scary experience. In a third person game, you’re more distanced from the action – things are happening to your avatar on screen as you tell him/her what to do. The first person is not only more immersive in this instance, but it also restricts your field of vision more – you can’t see what’s behind or to the sides of you, for instance. This is obviously great for a horror game: the unknown /unseen is usually the scariest of all. However, such an approach might mandate an upper limit on look sensitivity to prevent the sort of whipping around that most FPS players tend to do to check their surroundings.

Realism is tantamount to making a frightening game, and most developers in the genre have abandoned this. RE5 was a cavalcade of truly absurd shit, from its action-movie protagonists and quick-time events to Wesker, who was less a monster and more a superhuman. Silent Hill has always had crazy monsters, but they remain creepy because they have identifiable parts (like baby heads!). These games only stop being scary to me when you inevitably leave the real-world settings and enter the funhouse version of the town where everything is blood red. As an example, in Silent Hill 4: The Room (not the most popular installment, I know, but the one I’m most familiar with), the scariest parts were those that took place in your own apartment, because it was such a realistic and relatable setting that horrifying things were happening in.

I’d love to see somebody put the “survival” back into “survival horror.” What if there was a game that took the eternal question, “What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?”, and posed it to the player? If the game started out with your character waking up in the middle of the night to chaos, and you had to find your way to safety, build barricades, improvise weapons, scavenge for food, et cetera? I’m not asking that survival horror games regress to the days of poor controls and haunted houses, but the direction of generic action can’t the best road for these games to continue down. Some food for thought, anyway…or should I say brain food? (No, no I shouldn’t.)

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

July 17, 2010 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

Review: Joe Danger (PSN)

My first official P*N review.  Enjoy!

Game Review: Joe Danger
Release: June 8, 2010
Genre: Arcade / Racing
Developer: Hello Games
Available Platforms: PSN
Players: 1-2
MSRP: $14.99
ESRB Rating: E
Website: http://www.hellogames.org/

It’s hard to sum up Joe Danger in a sentence. Is it a racing game? A stunt game? A platformer? The inaugural title of Hello Games (a studio made up of just four friends and industry veterans), it draws from a variety of different genres to make up a fast-paced and unique arcade experience.

Like any arcade game, the plot is pretty bare-boned: you play as the titular Joe Danger, an Evil Knievel-esque daredevil who has fallen on some hard times (and some hard things), and has fallen from the spotlight after a particularly nasty injury. As “the world’s most determined stuntman,” however, Joe isn’t willing to give up on his dreams for glory so easily, and it’s your job to take him to the top of his reckless profession. To do so, you participate in events and tours showcasing the fact that, yes, you are the illest dude to ever ride a motorcycle.
Joe Danger wears its influences on its sleeve. The basic mechanics take a page from ExciteBike: tilting the joystick to the left or right controls the tilt of the bike and lets you perform wheelies or spins in the air. Tricks earn you points for that elusive high score, and can be chained together and multiplied much like in Tony Hawk. Though levels progress left to right like a 2D game, there are 2 to 3 different tracks laid out that you can switch between, reminiscent of Little Big Planet.* Finally, with its use of springs, tricky jumps, hazards, and collectibles, the game sometimes feels like a platformer.

Each level has a number of different goals to achieve, such as collecting all the stars in the course or completing the track under a certain time. Some of these goals are mutually exclusive, and others require you to fulfill multiple objectives in a single run. Repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as these different goals lead to a pretty wide variety in gameplay. One run-through might have you meticulously searching the stage for pickups, wondering how you get up to a particularly hard-to-reach star, while another might have you frantically racing against the clock while trying to keep a trick combo going through the whole level.
Events themselves are equally mixed, ranging from races against your nemeses, Team Nasty, to more freeform stages with stars to collect, targets to land on, and times to beat. There are even Puzzle stages that introduce you to the clever in-game track editor by making you reposition obstacles and create ramps in order to get to all the stars. This editor is also available from the main menu, allowing you to make your own courses and challenges to share with your friends once you’re through with the career mode.

The career mode is quite lengthy, however, and incredibly challenging. It took me about 6 to 8 hours to complete (and that’s without getting every last medal), so have no fears about getting your money’s worth here. The first few tours start off slow, giving you time to work out the controls, which, though nice and tight, take some getting used to. (For example, holding square makes Joe duck and releasing it makes him jump. This was counterintuitive enough that I found myself crashing into all manner of obstacles before my thumbs finally got into the game.)

After this, though, the game stops messing around, and certain medals become brutally difficult. Time trials and 100% stunt runs in particular require nearly perfect performances throughout levels, one slip up often spelling failure. I’m up for a challenge, but these goals became so frustratingly difficult that I, usually a completionist to the bitter end, had to start skipping them. By the end, even some of the simpler objectives became a test of patience. I feel the difficulty bar is set a bit too high here, though I’m sure there are some masochists out there who will love this fact. As a side note, for a game so clearly bent towards repetition, it’s nice that there’s one button that restarts the level. But there isn’t much in the way of musical variety, and the announcer only has one or two phrases, so the audio becomes a bit grating over time.

Thankfully, the game has a winning personality and aesthetic all its own, which goes a long way to ease the bitter pain of defeat. The bright, cartoony characters and landscape match the tone quite well, and are genuinely pleasing to watch. Joe himself is a likable character with his pot belly, stubble, and ridiculous costume – a bit of a shame given how much punishment he endures. The animations to his crashes and falls into shark tanks can also be pretty humorous if you take the time to watch them.
There is a multiplayer mode, but it’s unfortunately limited to 2-person local play. The split screen can make it hard to see your surroundings, and it seems there’s only one mode to play: a straightforward race. Online play would have been nice, especially with the track editor – it would have been cool to see what sort of diabolical maps the PSN community would come up with. Ultimately, though, these are all extraneous frills, and the meat of the game lies in its solid single player experience.

Bottom Line: Though the gameplay takes elements from a myriad of other games, it’s all presented in a unique way. It’s less a seamless blend of genres than a schizophrenic mashup, but somehow that’s why it’s so fun – juggling all the disparate things it asks you to do at once is challenging and exciting. The steep difficulty curve and tricky controls make it hard to recommend to everyone, but it’s a solid game with a lot of charm, and if you’re interested in arcade racing or 2D platforming, I’d say to give a try. Just don’t get hung up on unlocking every medal, or you may end up crazier than Joe.

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*It’s implemented much better here, though. Where in LBP you would often find yourself jumping between different depths inadvertently, here there are specific “switch gates” you must drive through to change lanes.

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

July 11, 2010 at 5:16 pm Leave a comment

Diamonds In The Rough: Metal Arms (GCN/XBox/PS2)

Welcome to “Diamonds in the Rough,” a feature in which I take a look at a few lesser-known and under-appreciated titles of the past.  These are games that were fun and original, many of which I fettered away hours of my young life with, but for whatever reason just didn’t get the credit they deserved.A quirky third-person shooter developed by the incredibly short-lived Swingin’ Ape Studios (this was the only game they turned out, at least under that name), you could be forgiven if you overlooked or forgot about Metal Arms: Glitch In The System.  However, I might suggest that you missed out.  Though the third person shooter has always been drastically overshadowed by its big FPS brother, I’ve always been partial to them (I attribute this to the excellent Jet Force Gemini).  While Metal Arms’ controls weren’t as refined as the modern 3PS, it also predated the genre’s over-reliance on cover systems.  This wasn’t a game about subtlety – it was all about blowing a tremendous amount of shit up.And it certainly gave you the tools to do it.  Much like Ratchet & Clank, the weapons are both over-the-top and incredibly fun to use.  From a sniper rifle that shoots explosive rivets to grenades that “hack” powerful enemy robots and make them your minions, you can’t fault the developers for lack of originality.  Dual wielding is also something that doesn’t crop up terribly often in the genre (or at least, hadn’t at that point in time), and it works great here.  The fact that all of the characters are robots isn’t just a thematic choice but is really integrated into the gameplay: apart from gaining AI-controlled minions via the aforementioned grenades, you can also launch a fiber-obtic cable into the ports of certain enemies to take control of them manually.  This led to some interesting strategies and even more variety in destructive choices.  As a side note, robots also equal guilt-free dismemberment, something we can all enjoy.The campaign, apart from being lengthy, challenging, and well-paced, also had a solid sense of humor, sometimes coming off as unusually colorful for a game rated Teen.  There was even some RPG-style progression as your weapons gained levels over time and became more powerful.  But the star of the show for me was the multiplayer, though its split-screen interface is woefully outdated by today’s standards.  Nevertheless, it was a unique competitive experience because all of the crazy shenanigans from the single-player mode actually get thrown in.  Ridiculous vehicles, inert robots that you can make subservient or control manually, maxed-out  weapons, it’s all there.  In fact, kill streaks are rewarded by a small troupe of weak AI bots (that could nevertheless be deadly in close quarters).  The whole thing felt half like a shooter and half like an absurd arms race.

Between its humorous narrative, unique gameplay, and wanton destruction (even parts of the environment were destructible, something pretty impressive for the time), Metal Arms was a thoroughly enjoyable shooter that didn’t take itself too seriously and didn’t get the credit it deserved.  I hear it was released on XBox Originals – I’d recommend checking it out.

What games do you think were tragically underrated?  What hidden gems do you fondly recall from your own childhood?  Let me know in the comments!

(Reposted from Platform Nation)

July 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm Leave a comment

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